Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Geometry in Photographic Composition



August Sander


The frame is the basis of a photograph’s composition. Within an image, lines parallel and perpendicular to the frame have a special attachment to it. They divide the photograph into discrete units that in turn seek their own sense of balance within the larger whole. The grid formed by these lines can create multiple frames, each with its own set of positive and negative spaces. Objects and areas located at intersections on the grid gather an extra visual weight. Far from being static compositional devices, grids can be used as a lattice through which the viewer moves from point to point in the photograph.

Let’s look at some specific examples of the grid as a compositional device. In the portraits by Robert Kalman below, notice how carefully the figure fits within the doorways, facades, stonework, and architectural details of the backgrounds. The integration of figure and ground completes the premise behind this series of images: portraits taken in front of the sitters’ places of residence.


Robert Kalman

Robert Kalman

Robert Kalman

Robert Kalman


Sometimes, as with the Robert Kalman photographs, the grid itself is clearly visible. I call this explicit grid. Other times, the grid needs to be pieced together by the viewer from the alignment of key elements within the frame. This is implicit grid. With implicit grid, the structure is felt more than seen. A good example of implicit grid is the image by Nicholas Nixon discussed in the very first entry in this series on composition. What appears to be a rather informal family gathering on a porch reveals itself to be highly organized. The (perhaps unconscious) appreciation of that structure is one of the elements which keeps viewers engaged with the image. In the street scenes by Alex Webb and Joel Meyerowitz below, do you see the grid underlying the apparently chaotic movement of the children at play and the pedestrians on the street?


Nicholas Nixon

Nicholas Nixon

Alex Webb

Joel Meyerowitz


Grids underlying an image can be complex, as with the Nixon and Webb images, but they don’t have to be. Below are some examples of a pattern one sees repeated frequently. These photographs all have something in common: they are divided into a square and a rectangle. The ratio of square to rectangle is very close to what is known as the Golden Section or Golden Ratio, a method of creating harmonious proportions known since antiquity.


Garry Winogrand

Steve McCurry

Steve McCurry


Robert Frank

Henri Cartier-Bresson

The Golden Section


For photographers, there is a pattern in how the square/rectangle tends to get used. Typically, a comparison is being made between the contents of the square and the contents of the rectangle. For example: man/woman, human/animal, dark/light, front/back, sharp/blurry, present/absent, etc. In class, I often talk about how composition is a matter of recognizing patterns. The square/rectangle is a particularly useful and simple motif, which solves some major compositional problems such as failing to identify the subject or failing to differentiate subject and foil. I encourage you to practice looking for squares and rectangles as you shoot in order to make this device part of your visual vocabulary. I also recommend looking for underlying grids in the work of established photographers to help train your eye to see those as well.


This is the eigth in a series of blog posts dealing with photographic composition. The others can be found in the “For Students” section on the menu bar. The ideas introduced in these essays are also presented in The Grammar of Photography, a class I teach at Pratt Institute. The next section of that class begins February 4, and will run Wednesday evenings for 10 weeks. For more information, you can download a pdf of the Pratt course catalog here.

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